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Student files discrimination lawsuit against University of Maryland, alleging repeated gluten exposure

A student with celiac disease has filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Maryland, College Park, alleging the institution discriminated against her medical condition and repeatedly served her foods containing gluten.

Allegany County native Hannah Smith filed the complaint Feb. 20, describing several incidents in which she became violently ill after she was mistakenly served food containing gluten. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten can cause an immune response than can damages the small intestines.

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The suit alleges the university violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and that culinary staffers retaliated against Smith after she complained. The law’s definition of a disability includes autoimmune diseases such as celiac, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

A University of Maryland spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending litigation and referred questions to the Maryland attorney general’s office. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said Friday that the office has not been served a copy of the complaint.

Smith was diagnosed as a teen with celiac disease, which is rare and can cause long-term health complications. One of the treatments for the disease is maintaining a gluten-free diet.

The complaint states that before committing to live on campus, Smith and her father contacted the university and asked for a meeting to discuss whether the student would be able to eat at the campus dining halls. Students living on campus are required to buy into a meal plan, according to the suit.

Maryland dining services staff allegedly assured the Smith family during an in-person meeting that accommodations could be made.

Over the course of the 2017-2018 academic year, Smith was allegedly served food containing gluten at least three times. Each time, Smith asked in advance whether the dish contained gluten and was told it did not. The food caused her to become severely ill and in one case led to her hospitalization, the suit states.

After one incident, a staff member allegedly provided Smith with blackened toast and told her “You know, I got called on the carpet because nobody told me that malt had gluten in it. Here’s your breakfast. I hope you enjoy your ‘gluten free’ toast."

Another employee allegedly told Smith privately that the university did not take food allergies seriously, according to the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit states Smith, who came to the university as an honors student, struggled academically during her illness and recovery.

The university allegedly did not refund the cost of the meal plan and charged Smith more money to live in an on-campus apartment with a kitchen the following year.

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